Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Legitimacy of Excellent Genre

I was thinking today of how we're tempted to draw a line between 'serious writing' and 'fluff', and then hand over way too much credit to 'serious writing', which is understandable in some ways, though I'm rather fond of fluff and don't like to see it dismissed so.

Where I get a little stroppy is when we identify good writing as literary, which is what we're in danger of doing when we start talking about 'serious writing' in the genres.

Now to me, Literary Fiction is writing that experiments with the forms and conventions of literature.  Telling story is not essential.  Consideration of important themes and the human condition is. 
(You ever notice how LitFic doesn't make you laugh much?  Ah.  Thought you had.)

Genre Writing -- or Popular Writing, Commercial Writing, or whatever you call it -- doesn't generally play around with the forms and conventions of writing.  In genre, story is primary.  It's central and essential.   Exploration of important themes and consideration of the human condition ... optional. 
Some of it's even funny.

There's good genre fiction and bad genre fiction, of course, just as there's good LitFic and bad LitFic.
(And I will venture to say that bad writing with pretensions is worse than ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad writing with Scottish Lairds romping half naked through the gorse bushes.)

But being well written doesn't turn genre fiction into LitFic any more than being poorly written turns LitFic into genre. 
They're different beasts. 

If somebody wants to use 'serious fiction' or 'legitimate fiction' or 'legitlit' to describe excellent writing in a few selected genres, there's no reason he shouldn't do so . . . 

. . . though I gotta say we already have a term for excellent popular fiction.  We call these books 'excellent popular fiction'.  We call them 'great genre stories'.  We use the term for books that are well and skillfully realized, but resolutely oriented toward storytelling and accessibility.  These are our best.  These are the pride of the genre.  They reflect glory on everyone who writes it. 
They're ours.  So there.  (Thumbs nose.)

I don't like critics coming in and trying to sneak our best genre books out the side door into something marked 'serious literature'.

The notion that a well-written genre book wins the prize of no longer being genre and that genre is crap because there are no well-written books in it is as circular as the Eye on London or the moon or some other big, noticeably circular thing.   

Says, I, speaking from my collection of infallible opinion that I just happen to have in this bag here.


  1. AMEN! I am a proud writer of genre fiction, and feel quite "legit" enough with somebody tossing the "litfic" crumbs my way, thank you very much.

  2. I think e-publication may turn LitFic loose.

    Right now, getting published in LitFic is very incestuous small presses and knowing the right people. Going to the right workshops.

    I wonder what happens when all that talent and energy moves into e-pub. No barriers. No confining definitions of LitFic.

    The 'speculative fiction' side of SF is wonderfully exciting. Be interesting to know how well it does with on-line publication.

  3. Anonymous9:57 PM

    Amen! I just assume anyone who disses genre fiction hasn't read much of it.

    I'd really appreciate it if someone could explain to me why wanting to tell or wanting to hear a good story is such a bad thing?

  4. This is very well put. To me literary fiction deals with universal experiences and dilemmas, while genre fiction has more specific, pre-agreed upon set of requirements, such as setting, type of character, etc. I love both literary and genre fiction, and like you said, think both good and bad writing can be found in each.

  5. Hi Romantic --

    I'd argue that storytelling is the oldest profession. *g* And that storytelling is the origin of language.

    Wolves manage complex hunts without spoken language. Birds call out warnings to the flock, managing to say, specifically, "Look out, look out, it's Mrs. Jones' lop-eared tom in the rhododendrons!!!" Bees return to the hive and identify the exact sort of flowers, how far, and in what direction.

    And they have no language.

    But if you want to tell lies ... umm ... I mean, tell story, you need language.

  6. Hi Becca --

    Right. Genre fiction isn't an unsuccessful attempt at literary fiction. It isn't polyester pretending to be silk.

    Genre is good, solid, versatile cotton. It doesn't want to grow up to be silk. It wants to grow up to be long-staple Egyptian cotton with an 880 thread count.

  7. Given the very high quality of your writing, you are in a perfect position to write this post! In fact I think I have seen a reviewer suggest that your writing is too accomplished for genre writing... I like the analogy in your last comment about cotton and silk very much.

    I was thinking about this very topic yesterday because my favourite-author-in-another-genre (Josh Lanyon) said something similar in a GoodReads discussion on editing:

    "There are different reasons for writing and I don't pretend to be a great literary genius. I write genre fiction and I write it well... I happen to think genre writing is a noble profession. :-) To be a top notch writer of genre fiction is just as demanding in its own way as to be a writer of top notch literary fiction. Possibly more so."

    And one of the other commentators (also an author) said something which struck a chord with me: "...literary writing" is just a genre, too. Discuss. :)"

  8. When I first started querying back in the early 90s, I was aghasted at how stuck-up the Canadian agents and houses were. They were only interested in Literary works. Today that's changing because they're beginning to realize just how important good entertainment is. You can see it in the mast appeal of the Canadian television and film industry.

    Great post. I jumped over from Sara Bowers' blog.

  9. Hi Helena --

    I'm inclined to go with the 'LitFic is a genre' argument.

    It has agreed-upon rules. Some books will be rejected as 'not LitFic', not on the basis of quality but for not obeying the rules. One can pick a story up and assign it with some certainty as 'LiFic' rather than 'General Commercial Fiction'.
    All these are signs of genre.

  10. Hi Joylene --

    I think the Canadian government gives good support to its writers in the form of prizes, scholarships, conferences and so on. Am I right about that?

    I have the feeling though that these prizes are heavily slanted toward supporting LitFic.

  11. Joanna, I'm with Helena: you're the one to bear this standard credibly down the field. I also think Don Maass would agree with you. His latest, "21st Century Fiction" points out that the books that are taking up permanent residence on the best seller's lists (Hunger Games, Gone Girl) are the books that can straddle the boundaries--they use the tropes, but they raise larger issues, they're well written, but don't quite fit either box--and this trend is only getting stronger.

    Now I must figure how I can pop out a half dozen or so of these transcendent successes...

  12. Y'know -- genre has ALWAYS written about important issues. Difference is, genre lays the important stuff in between the lines, often as not.

  13. My MFA program just did a presentation on "When Lit Goes Pop." They looked at lit fic authors like Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood dabbling in pop fic genres. And Stephen King's Lisey's Story got a lot of great reviews, almost as if it was approaching lit fic.

    I made the point that in romance, the barrier is still closed. Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters and Liane Moriarty's What Alice Forgot are both arguably Novels With Strong Romantic Elements, but they're marketed solely as lit fic. I think it would be perceived as slumming if such books were cross-marketed. Which is a shame because they're delightful books with a lot to please a dedicated romance reader.

    But there you go--when even the New York Times refers to THE romance reader (as if we're a monolithic hive mind), you know that we have a ways to go before the industry thinks we can handle lit fic romances--or that there can even be modern-day lit fic romances--and tries to perforate that barrier.

  14. Hi Magdalen --

    You are so right in saying Romance don't get no respect. I see S.F., Mystery, or Erotica as more likely to produce that genre/LitFic hybrid than genre Romance.

    I hear, and give credence to, the many reasons Romance genre is not well regarded. It's by, about, and for women. It's domestic. While it celebrates female empowerment, most books stay within the framework of existing middle-class values. The majority of Romance books published are accessible to an audience with high school reading skills.
    Then there are the covers ....

    I wonder, though, if the true gulf lies in something more basic. The Romance genre is defined by the HEA. I don't say LitFic is precisely defined by depressing, but you'd have to comb through pretty vigorously to come up with wholly upbeat endings.

    1. I think any of us could throw a dart--a wobbly, poorly aimed dart!--at the whole range of factors for the divide between romance and lit fic stories and hit a plausible answer. Yes, I notice in Top 20 Books lists at the end of the year that it's easy to pick out the books with unhappy endings and just know I wouldn't enjoy them. I don't entirely understand people who feel the same way about HEAs--"I wouldn't read a book about engaging characters if I knew they'd be happy at the end"? ::shakes head::

      And it could be the whole package. Thinking, for example, of Patricia Gaffney's To Love & To Cherish, where yes, it's about the quotidian life of a small village in mid-19th Century England...but it even more about the closely-observed emotional life of two specific characters and whether they will be able to be happy together. Close POV, focus on the couple, emphasis on inner- and emotional-lives...all not so lit ficky, if you see what I mean.

      Here's what grabs me though: A newspaper no less august than the New York Times can, in a single article, reference the fact that 75 million people bought at least one romance novel in 2010 (pre-50 Shades, mind you) and yet we're reduced to a singularity. (I blogged about this, if someone wants the link to the Times article.)

      There's no one lit fic reader. Quite the contrary, they are all wildly individual, sharing only an innate good taste and intellectual refinement.

      My point is that the cultural impression of the romance reader is shrunk down to a single dot on the literary landscape. Which is too bad: we buy a lot of books. We'd have bought more of Moriarty's What Alice Forgot, if the publisher had let us know we might like it...

  15. Not much for me to add to this brilliant post and all of the interesting comments. I'd just like to say BRAVO!

    1. Hi Mollie --

      The perception of Romance is so skewed because folks who write about books in some important fora -- like the Times -- don't read Romance. They don't even realize there's excellent Romance out there ...

      Maybe Mystery writers feel the same way.

  16. I'm a great fan of Patricia Gaffney. I came to her so recently I have a whole backlist ahead of me. A lovely position to be in.

    I'm not sure why Romance is judged by its most mediocre, while S.F. is judged by Night Circus and Daughter of Smoke and Bone. S.F. has its endless Trekkie reprises and elf-dwarf-thief-and-magician seek the Amulet of Withersnatch, but nobody suggests that's all it has.

    ( )

    I'm going to blame the perception of Romance homogeneity on those indistinguishable Romance covers. If we don't want our books to be judged as a pile of fungibles, we should stop having covers that say we are.

  17. I'm with you on the covers. How many covers feature a large skirt and not much else? Or a bare hairless chest? Makes it very hard to convince people that the content isn't as interchangeable as the covers.

    There seems to be an assumption that for a book to be taken seriously, it must be provide a gut-wrenching experience. If you enjoy the read, it must be trivial.

    Once upon a time the big argument was whether the primary purpose of literature was to teach or to give pleasure. The assumption was that it did both. The only question was where the emphasis should fall.

  18. You know, when you say, "to teach or to give pleasure," I wonder whether we've maybe separated the functions too much.

    Maybe LitFic can acknowledge and glory in its books that are accessible, coherent 'story' and meant to touch the emotions. Maybe Romance genre can take more pride in our books that talk in depth about the human condition.

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